Fred Pelzman: How This Old Dog Learned His New Tricks
I was 54 when I took up painting. I had been happily married for 26 years when my wife announced she wanted to take a vacation — by herself! Until then a Pelzman family vacation meant cramming four kids and our Airedale into and on top of an aging station wagon, and driving 3-4 hours to the nearest Atlantic beach. But off she went and seven days later was back.
“Now it’s your turn,” Frankie announced. “Isn’t there something you’ve always wanted to do on your own?”
“Well, I’ve thought of taking a painting workshop . . .”
“Then do it!” she challenged.
So off I went to a six-day landscape painting workshop in Davis, West Virginia, led by a fabulous painter, William Gerhold. While I had taken several basic painting classes around Washington, I had never painted outdoors. I had paints and brushes but knew nothing about buying — and setting up—a French Easel, so my fellow students had to show me how (several times). The12 of us would meet after breakfast every morning in the motel lobby, where Bill would critique each of our previous day’s efforts. I was not only the oldest, but definitely the novice. An hour later, we piled into our cars, Bill leading to that day’s site. Since this was West Virginia, there was no shortage of spectacular views, or picturesque farms. The first task was deciding what to paint and, almost as important, what to leave (edit) out. Bill’s advice was invaluable; we were encouraged to take our canvas to where he was painting for his suggestions. This let us see what he was painting, from start to finish.
After six days of this total immersion, I was hooked. When I returned home, happily exhausted, I told Frankie, “I think I have some talent, but I definitely need to work on my skill.” She couldn’t have been more supportive: I would rush home after work, get into old clothes and scarf down a brown bag supper as I drove to my 7:30 painting class. Weekend classes were easier, of course, and I never took more than one class a week. Over the years, I enrolled in several more workshops, some better than others. I found I had no patience (ability?) with watercolor and found abstract painting a waste of time.
Most of my classes were held at either The Art League in Alexandria, Virginia or The Yellow Barn Gallery in Glen Echo, Maryland.
After at least a dozen years I held my first show in the main hallway of Georgetown University Hospital —and more than half of my paintings sold! My second show (38 paintings) at Glen Echo’s Yellow Barn Gallery almost sold out. My prices were modest, from $200 to $400, as I was not interested in making a profit, simply retrieving the cost of my painting supplies and instruction. Around this time I began painting peoples’ homes on commission, starting at $350 and eventually charging $1,000. This was gratifying, not only the higher prices, but working with my clients and seeing the satisfaction they derived from my work.
Now 87, and after 26 years of my wonderful hobby, I no longer have the energy to pack, lug out and set up my French easel, paints, umbrella, etc. Having sold my house and studio, I now happily make do in a 14th-floor apartment with a sensational view — facing north! — over three miles of parkland. I am enrolled in yet another class at The Yellow Barn learning various techniques for sketching in pencil, colored pencil, pen and ink and even my old nemesis, watercolor. A sketchbook is far lighter than my well worn French easel!
The range of Pelzman’s talent is demonstrated further by these two paintings. At left: In the heart of Washington’s Georgetown is one of the first and lowest locks of the C&O Canal, where the Park Service began its Canal Clipper. The artist often shared the space with the mule that towed the Clipper. One of his friends had the blue-green house next to the brick one. At right: The striking nude is a composite of several models over the years.
By Fred Pelzman